By Robert Wightman

There has been a lot of talk on Positive Train Control, PTC, lately, especially with the New Jersey Transit, NJT, in Hoboken recently. Exactly what is PTC, why did it come in to being and what will it do?

From Wikipedia

Positive train control (PTC) is a system of functional requirements for monitoring and controlling train movements as an attempt to provide increased safety. The American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association (AREMA) describes Positive Train Control as having these primary characteristics:[1]

  • Train separation or collision avoidance
  • Line speed enforcement
  • Temporary speed restrictions
  • Rail worker wayside safety

It resulted after a Metrolink Commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train collided on September 12, 2008, in California, which resulted in the deaths of 25 and injuries to more than 135 passengers. The operator of the commuter train was allegedly texting on his cell phone at the time and ran a red signal. The US Congress passed a 315 page bill that President Bush signed into law on October 16, 2008.

PTC would have prevented the Metro North Derailment where the commuter train entered the curve at three times the stated speed on Dec. 1st, 2013 killing 4 and injuring more than 70. It would also have prevented the Amtrak derailment near Philadelphia in May of 2015 that killed 8 and injured over 200.

There are many incidents that PTC would NOT have prevented. In the US these include:

  1. The accident on FEB. 3rd, 2015 where a Metro-North  train slams into an SUV on the tracks at a railroad crossing about 20 miles north of New York City, killing the SUV’s driver and five people aboard the train,

  2. The April 3rd, 2016 accident on Amtrak where two employees moved a back hoe onto the tracks near Chester PA without obtaining permission from the Rail Dispatcher. If they had done this the track would have been locked out and the train switched to another track.

  3. The Sept. 22nd 1993 incident where a barge hits a railroad bridge near Mobile, Alabama. Minutes later, an Amtrak train hits the bent tracks and plunges into the bayou, killing 47 people.

  4. The accident of January 26, 2005 when a, southbound Metrolink commuter train #100 collided with an SUV that had been abandoned on the tracks immediately south of the Chevy Chase Drive The train jackknifed and struck trains on either side of it—one a stationary Union Pacific freight train, and the other a northbound Metrolink train (#901) traveling in the opposite direction. The chain-reaction collisions resulted in the deaths of 11 people.

  5. The collision in Feb. 2015 where six people died and 12 were injured when a Metro-North  train smashed into an SUV that was stopped on the tracks in Westchester County.

  6. The most recent collision in the US, the New Jersey Transit, NJT commuter train crash in Hoboken NJ, would not have been prevented by PTC because the Federal Railway Administration, FRA, had granted a Main Line Track Exclusion Addendums (MTEAs) for the New Jersey Transit’s Hoboken passenger terminals where speeds are restricted to no more than 20 mph and interlocking rules are in effect as the terminal is too complex for the system, PTC, to operate.

In the Canadian context PTC would have prevented the VIA train derailment at Burlington on Feb. 26th 2012 when a Via train entered a 15 mph crossover at 56 MPH killing the 3 crew in the locomotive and injuring 46 people. It would not have prevented the Lac Megantic disaster where an unattended train ran away backwards down a grade after being left without enough hand brakes applied nor would it have prevented the CP Derailment in the winter of 2015 near Nippigon ON that was caused by broken rail inside an insulated joint which was partially caused by extreme cold.

Positive Train Control may look like a major safety advance, and it is, but at price tag of over $2 billion Canadian it makes one wonder if it is the best bang for the buck. There are more people killed each year in level crossing collisions between trains and autos than in PTC preventable railway accidents. Would it not be more prudent to increase level crossing grade separations before PTC? Major train accidents maybe more spectacular but more people are killed in level crossing accidents each year that in train accidents.

  1. American Railway Engineering and Maintenance-of-Way Association (AREMA), Lanham, MD (2009). “Meeting the Communication Challenges for Positive Train Control.” AREMA 2009 Annual Conference & Exposition, Chicago, IL.